A suicide, two car accidents, and two days ago, a coach with a heart attack: In the past two years, students at one high school have lost five members of their small community.
“I was just in complete shock. It didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t hit me at first,” says Kelly, 17.
“It was just like disbelief. I didn’t even know what to think in a way,” 17-year-old Ashley says.
Whenever a tragedy occurs on a school campus – a school shooting, an accident or a suicide – the grief counselors always rush in to help. They encourage students to talk about their feelings, hoping to help them cope with the horrible things they’ve seen and heard.
Some students say they get a lot out of grief counseling, even if they didn’t think they would.
“To have to lean on someone else was not my type of personality, but after the experience – I think it was good for me,” says Neha, 17. “[It] kinda made me see things in different lights. It helped my anger [to deal] with why I’m having to work so hard if life is so fragile,” she says.
But other students say they don’t benefit from grief counseling and don’t even like it.
“How could they know what I was experiencing?” asks John, 18. “They didn’t know the girl; they didn’t know me.”
“It was easier for me to just keep quiet about it, not really talk about it. Sort of absorb it myself,” Kelly says.
Conventional wisdom says it’s unsafe to repress your feelings.
“It can lead to depression,” says Oona Cadorin, a grief counselor for the Center for Living with Dying. “Sometimes kids can have nightmares.”
But two studies on grief question that notion along with the idea of blanket grief counseling for everyone who has experienced tragedy. One, from the Netherlands, suggests grief counseling can actually increase a child’s fears and nightmares, especially if the child is left with no follow-up therapy.
Another, from the National Institute of Mental Health, says that most people can recover from tragedy without grief counselors. They may actually be better off getting back to work and school, back to their routine.
“It is about choice,” Cadorin says. “So I think that you should offer to have the routine continue, and then also allow people not to participate in it.”
She says if your children experience tragedy, the best step to take is to make sure they have options. Remind them that it is OK to talk to counselors or not to talk, and they can change their minds at any time.
What We Need to Know
In order to determine whether or not a child may need extra help in dealing with a traumatic event, it is necessary to talk with him or her about the tragedy. Don’t automatically assume that this should be left up to school counseling staff or health-care professionals. Often, it is easier for children to talk to their parents about personal feelings rather than confide in a stranger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following tips for helping children cope with tragedy:
- Talk with your child. Provide simple and accurate information to his or her questions.
- Share with your child your own feelings about the event.
- Listen to what your child says and how your child says it. Is there fear, anxiety or insecurity in his or her voice? Repeating your child’s words may be very helpful, such as “You are afraid that … .” This helps both you and your child clarify feelings.
- Reassure your child: “We are together. We care about you. We will take care of you.”
- You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times. Do not stop responding just because you told your child once or even 10 times.
- Hold your child. Provide comfort. Touching is important, especially during this period. Close contact helps assure your child that you are there and will not abandon him or her.
The Nemours Foundation offers these additional strategies for providing support to children in times of tragedy:
- Let your child talk about the traumatic event when and if he or she feels ready. It is important not to force the issue if your child does not feel like sharing his or her thoughts.
- Reassure your child that his or her feelings are normal and that he or she is not “going crazy.” The support and understanding that you provide can help your child accept his or her most frightening emotions.
- Encourage your child to get involved in a support group for trauma survivors. Check your local hospital or mental health association to locate a group close to you.
- If you suspect that your child is suicidal, get professional help immediately. Thoughts of suicide are serious at any age and require prompt and effective intervention.
- Let your child make simple decisions whenever appropriate. Because traumatic events often make a child feel powerless, you can help him or her by showing your child that he or she has control over certain aspects of his or her life.
- Tell your child that the traumatic event is not his or her fault. Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings of guilt, but don’t let him or her blame himself or herself for what happened.
- Stay in touch with your child’s teachers and friends.
- Do not criticize regressive behavior. If your child wants to sleep with the lights on, it’s perfectly normal and can help him or her soothe himself or herself.
- Take care of yourself so that you are well equipped to help your child. You can’t be supportive if you are neglecting your own emotional or physical health.
If you think your child is having serious problems with grief and loss, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests looking for the following signs:
- An extended period of depression in which your child loses interest in daily activities and events
- Inability to sleep, loss of appetite and a prolonged fear of being alone
- Acting much younger for an extended period
- Excessively imitating the dead person
- Repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
- Withdrawal from friends
- Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
These warning signs indicate that professional help may be needed. A child and adolescent psychiatrist can help your child accept the death and assist the survivors in helping your child through the mourning process.
About the Program
When a tragedy occurs on a school campus, grief counselors often rush in to help. They encourage students to talk about their feelings, hoping to help them cope with the horrible things they’ve seen and heard. Some students say they get a lot out of grief counseling, even if they didn’t think they would. Some say they don’t benefit — and don’t even like it. Conventional wisdom says it’s unsafe to repress your feelings.